It begins with noticing

It begins with noticing

From Moments of Being by Dani Shapiro:

"As I write, a hard rain is pelting against yesterday’s snow, and patches of dark green, wet stone, fallen twigs are visible just beneath fields of translucent ice. A world, submerged, slowly reveals itself. It reminds me of what it is to make a book -- or, perhaps, what it is to live a life.

"A world -- submerged -- reveals itself.

Moss and Leaf

"It begins with noticing. Something buried rustles and stirs. If we’re quiet and attentive enough, we may notice the stirring. What is this? Perhaps we poke at it. Or maybe we turn our backs. Run away. We ignore it. Or we don’t notice at all. We stick our fingers in our ears and hum a merry little tune. If we don’t notice, the noise might grow a bit louder, but maybe the contents of that submerged world -- that beast -- will turn over and go back to sleep. At least for a little while.

Frost rimmed leaves

"The thing about the writing life -- or any creative, contemplative, solitary life, really -- is that merry little tunes don’t work. Not in the long run. Not even in the short run. What we ignore, we ignore at our own peril. What we embrace with courage, perseverance, humility, and clarity, becomes our instrument of illumination. This is why I often say that when I’m not writing, I’m not well. What I mean by this is that my mind and my heart begin to become unknowable to me, because the way I come to know myself is through following the line of words until the ice melts, until the field once again becomes visible. Countless times, over the course of these thirty years of writing, I have looked back at a piece of my own work and realized: so that’s what I was thinking. That’s what I was feeling. I had no idea."

Wild daffodils

From Red: Passion & Patience in the Desert by Terry Tempest Williams:

"I write to make peace with the things I cannot control. I write to create red in a world that often appears black and white. I write to discover. I write to uncover. I write to meet my ghosts. I write to begin a dialogue. I write to imagine things differently and in imagining things differently perhaps the world will change. I write to honor beauty. I write to correspond with my friends. I write as a daily act of improvisation. I write because it creates my composure. I write against power and for democracy. I write myself out of my nightmares and into my dreams. I write in a solitude born out of community. I write to the questions that shatter my sleep. I write to the answers that keep me complacent. I write to remember. I write to forget….

"I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient we are. I write as though I am whispering in the ear of the one I love."

Woven Textures

Snowdrops in the woods

Pico Iyer:

''I write -- though perhaps it sounds pretentious to say so -- to make a clearing in the wilderness, to find out what I care about and what exactly to make of it.''

Green World

John Green:

"I believe there is hope for us all, even amid the suffering -- and maybe even inside the suffering. And that’s why I write fiction, probably. It’s my attempt to keep that fragile strand of radical hope, to build a fire in the darkness."

Trailside Bloom

Octavia E. Butler:

''Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.''

Hound, noticing everything

Words: The Dani Shapiro passage above is from "On the Submerged World," published on her blog Moments of Being (February 16, 2016). The passage by Terry Tempest William is from her gorgeous essay, "A Letter to Deb Clow," which I recommend reading in full. You'll find it in Red: Passion & Patience in the Desert (Vintage, 2002). The shorter quotes above, and tucked into the picture captions, are from a wide variety of essays and interviews. All rights to the text above reserved by the respective authors.

Pictures: Moments in a Devon winter, on the cusp of spring.


Mastering the craft

And a Fairy Song by Arthur Rackham

From The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett:

"Why is it we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, 'I'll be playing in Carnegie hall next month!' you would pity her delusion, but beginning writers all over the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker.

"Perhaps you're thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer's art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means to get to the art, you must master the craft.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get the clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath. Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we're more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound -- not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself. 

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

"[My writing teacher] Allan Gurganus taught me how to love the practice, and how to write in a quantity that would allow me to figure out for myself what I was actually good at. I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don't know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

Sir Launcelot & the Fiendly Dragon by Arthur Rackham

"Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this, because it is the key to making art and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let's face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of intelligence. Every. Single. Time.

Two illustrations by Arthur Rackham

"Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe that, more than anything else, this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is the key. I can't write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself."

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Pictures: The paintings above are by the great English book illustrator Arthur Rackham (1867-1939).

Words: The passage above is from "The Getaway Car" by Ann Patchett, published as a Kindle ebook (2011), and in her essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Harpers, 2013), which I recommend. A portion of the text above was quoted on Myth & Moor in 2013 -- along with the poem in picture captions (which is one of mine).


The sea of stories

John D Battan

''We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.''

  - Neil Gaiman

"This earth that we live on is full of stories in the same way that, for a fish, the ocean is full of ocean. Some people say when we are born we’re born into stories. I say we’re also born from stories."

- Ben Okri

The drawing is from "English Fairy Tales," illustrated by John Dickson Batten (1860-1932), born across the moor from here in Plymouth.


Creative solitude: an alternative view

Nattadon Gate 1

After recommending Dorthe Nors' article on the value of creative solitude yesterday, I'd like to follow it up with an essay that takes a very different point of view: "How Not to Write Your First Novel" by American novelist Lev Grossman.

Fresh out of college and intending to be a writer, Lev headed West to find a lonely little town where he could "hunker down and get some real work done" -- and ended up on the coast of Maine. (For UK readers, this is like heading for Devon and ending up in the Shetlands.)

"I can't overstate how little I knew about myself at 22," he says, "or how little I'd thought about what I was doing. When I graduated from college I genuinely believed that the creative life was the apex of human existence, and that to work at an ordinary office job was a betrayal of that life, and I had to pursue that life at all costs. Management consulting, law school, med school, those were fine for other people -- I didn't judge! -- but I was an artist. I was super special. I was sparkly. I would walk another path.

"And I would walk it alone. That was another thing I knew about being an artist: You didn't need other people. Other people were a distraction. My little chrysalis of genius was going to seat one and one only."

Nattdon Gate 2

Lev found the isolation he craved in a rustic (i.e., barely habitable) apartment down a long dirt road -- but isolation proved to be a less romantic and creatively fecund state then he'd imagined.

"I'm not even sure I understood how lonely I was. I had friends back in the real world, but I never asked anyone to visit me. On some level I still didn't believe that I could be lonely, even though it was staring me in the face, all day and all night. I genuinely thought that because I wanted to be a writer, that made me different from other people: mysterious, self-contained, a lone wolf, Han Solo.

"But by the end of November my sanity was starting to sag under the weight of all that solitude and empty time and creative failure. I wrote less and less and liked less and less of what I wrote. I felt like I couldn't go to bed till I'd accomplished something, anything, but usually that just meant I stayed up till dawn and then collapsed from exhaustion....

Nattadon Signpost

Nattadon Gate 3

"Maine was trying to teach me something, but I was a slow learner. I thought I'd gone to Maine to face my demons and turn them into art, but it turned out that I couldn't face them, and not only that I couldn't even find them. I was trying to write about what I knew, which in itself probably wasn't a bad idea, but I was mistaken about what that was. I thought that what I knew most about was myself, but I could not have been more wrong. I didn't know the first thing about myself, and Maine wasn't going to teach me. You don't learn about yourself by being alone, you learn about yourself from other people."

To read the essay in full, please go here.

Nattadon Gate 4

And while we're speaking of Lev today, I also recommend his fine essay on C.S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: "Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy." And his 2015 Tolkien Lecture at Pembroke College, Oxford University.

Nattadon Gate 5

Nattadon Gate 3


Doing it for love

Love is Enough

From "Doing It for Love," an essay by novelist, poet, and memoirist Erica Jong:

"Despite all the cynical things writers have said about writing for money, the truth is we write for love. That is why it is so easy to exploit us. That is also why we pretend to be hard-boiled, saying things like: 'No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money' (Samuel Johnson). Not true. No one except a blockhead ever wrote except for love.

"There are plenty of easier ways to make money. Almost anything is less labor-intensive and better paid than writing. Almost anything is safer. Reveal yourself on the page repeatedly, and you are likely to be rewarded with exile, prison or neglect. Ask Dante or Oscar Wilde or Emily Dickinson. Scheme and betray, and you are likely be be reward with with wealth, publicity and homage. Tell the truth and you are likely to be a pariah within your family, a semi-criminal to authorities and damned with faint praise by your peers. So why do we do it? Because saying what you think is the only freedom. 'Liberty,' said Camus, 'is the right not to lie.'

"In society in which everything is for sale, in which deals and auctions make the biggest news, doing it for love is the only remaining liberty. Do it for love and you cannot be censored. Do it for love and you cannot be stopped. Do it for love and the rich will envy no one more than you. In a world of tuxedos the naked man is king. In a world of bookkeepers with spreadsheets, the one who gives it away without counting the cost is God."

Love is Enough

When I first read these words by Erica Jong, I was feeling a bit cynical myself. " 'Do it for love, not money,'  " I grumbled to Tilly. (I admit it, I talk to my dog.) "Well, that's easy for her to say when her very first novel was a best-seller. She's not fretting about electricity bills or putting food on the table."  But in fact, Jong's essay is not about the business of earning a living through art; it's about the deep, complex, mysterious feelings that cause us to make art at all. And when I ponder her words from this different perspective, I couldn't agree with her more.

We do it for love, of one kind or another. Love of the work, of the practice of our craft. Love of the painstaking process of bringing interior visions out into the world. Love of the various tools we use: ink, paper, paint, clay, fiddler's bow, photographer's light, the finely trained bodies of dancers and actors. Love of the solitary trance of creation, or the buzzy give-and-take of collaboration. Love of the first idea, of the rendering process, and then of the final product...followed by a reader's, viewer's, or listener's engagement. Love of completion, success, and achievement; and the harder love of set-back, failure, rejection, and all the things they teach.

Doing our work, with commitment and focus, is what makes us writers, painters, performers -- not the size of the pay check our art-making earns. Most of the writers I've edited over the years (and these include well-known authors with multiple books, devoted readers, and prestigious awards) don't make enough to life on by writing alone. I wish they did. In a better world they would. They are writing for love.

Tulip and Willow

And yes, most writers write with the intention of being published and read -- which usually means putting on our business hats and venturing out into the marketplace. This is the part of the art-making process that separates "real" artists from amateurs -- or so, in a hyper-capitalist, transactional culture we are led to believe. When I meet someone new and they learn I'm a writer, often the very first thing I am asked is: Have you published anything? Followed by: What name do you write under? Would I have heard of you? And sometimes, baldly: Does it pay?

No, I say gently, you probably won't have heard of me...unless fairy tales and myth-oriented fantasy happens to be your cup of tea. This generally ends the conversation. My querent's suspicions are now confirmed: I am not a "real" writer after all. Or else I'm just not a very good one, since I'm neither rich nor famous. I could protest that I've published many books and essays, won awards, been translated into ten languages. But I don't say any of this of course. A list of achievements isn't what matters. It isn't what makes me a writer.

I am a writer because I love words, and the process of shaping words into stories. I am an artist because I love line, color, and the process of pictures growing under my fingers. I am a writer, artist, and anthologist because I took the time, over many years, to learn the technical skills these crafts require; and because I work at them seriously and persistently. If you do too, then you are qualified to call yourself a "real" artist too.

The money I earn through creative work matters each month when bills are due; I won't pretend that it doesn't. And it buys me the time to make more art. But it doesn't measure the worth of my work -- and it is not the measure of yours. I've made art, in one form or another, for as long as I can remember: good art, bad art, successes and failures. Art that paid the rent, and art that cost me money. I do it out of love, and out of need. I do it because it is who I am. I do it because it's what I do best, and I'm not well suited for anything else. I do it because the tales I hold inside me want to be passed on.

Pomegranate

"I never remember a time when I didn't write," says Jong. "Notebooks, stories, journals, poems -- the act of writing always made me feel centered and whole. It still does. It is my meditation, my medicine, my prayer, my solace. I was lucky enough to learn early (with my first two books of poetry and my first novel) that if you are relentlessly honest about what you feel and fear, you can become a mouthpiece for something more than your own feelings."

I know this to be true.

"People are remarkably similar at the heart-level -- where it counts," she adds. "Writers are born to voice what we all feel. That is the gift. And we keep it alive by giving it away."

Indeed.

Honeysuckle

The artwork today is by William Morris (1834-1896), a man who has long been a hero of mine not only for his vision (rooted in nature and myth), and the astonishing range of creative endeavors he mastered, but because Morris firmly believed art belongs to everyone, rich and poor alike. As a leading figure in Britain's early Socialist movement, his writing and art was entwined (like the intricate vinework in his designs) with his tireless social activism. He left the world a better, kinder, more beautiful place. May we all do the same.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris

Willow design by William Morris

''Sweetbriar'' pattern by William Morris

Pictures: The "Love is Enough" book cover design by William Morris, with gold stamping on a forest green cloth (via The Victorian Web). The "Love is Enough" pattern by Morris reproduced on cloth. Morris' "Tulip & Willow," "Pomegranate," and "Honeysuckle" designs in progress. A photograph of Ned (Edward Burne-Jones) and Topsy (William Morris), best friends since their university days. Morris' ''Willow" design; and the "Sweetbriar" design, with quote.

Words: The passage by Erica Jong is from "Doing It for Love," an essay published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003). All rights reserved by the author.


The small things

The Wiggley Tree

When life, art, or a particular work-in-progress seem overwheming, confusing, or especially difficult, I take comfort in these words from Rainer Maria Rilke's wise little book, Letters to a Young Poet:

"If you trust in nature, in what is simple in nature, in the small things that hardly anyone sees and that can so suddenly become huge, immeasurable; if you have this love for what is humble and try very simply, as someone who serves, to win the confidence of what seems poor: then everything will become easier for you, more coherent and somehow more reconciling. Not in your conscious mind perhaps, which stays behind, astonished, but in your innermost awareness, awakeness, and knowledge."

Trust. Simplify. Value the small things. Live fully in the natural world.

Whether it's a life problem I am wrestling with, or a story that will not take shape, or a painting that won't properly cohere, these are -- for me -- the things that help me move forward again, almost always.

Fungi on the foot bridge

Streamside path

Autumn bloom


Finding your voice

Inspiration Board

I've been asked to re-post this piece on creative influence, so here it is. I wrote it several years ago, but still stand by every word....

Reading a recent interview with French book illustrator Didier Graffet, I found myself pausing at this line: "When I was younger and learning to paint, I was inspired by other artists' work," he says, "but now I avoid looking too much at the websites of other illustrators, even though they are good, everything is good, but I want to develop my own imagination."

Today, I'd like to reflect on both ends of that sentence. First, on the ways we shape ourselves as writers and artists by discovering, loving, and pouring over the words and pictures of those who have come before us. And second, on that vital moment when we turn away from others' work in order to travel inward and to map the realm of our own imaginations.

A Devon blacksmith photographed by James Ravilious

Let's start with the first part of the equation: "the ecstasy of influence" (to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Lethem's brilliant essay of that name, which I highly recommend). By "influential art," what I mean is art that we not only admire but take passionately to heart: those life-changing books that we read and re-read, those paintings we look at over and over again -- prompted, I would hazzard to guess, by the feeling that there's a similar kind of magic within us, awakened or strengthened by our deep response to what another hand has created.

Sometimes this influence can be almost too strong and we find ourselves working in another artist's style, not our own -- think of all those imitation-Tolkien fantasy books, for example, or all those imitation-Brian-Froud faeries. And yet, I would argue, imitation is not necessarily wrong if it's part of a learning journey and not the journey's destination. Just as children imitate their elders, the training process for a budding writer or artist does sometimes involve a certain amount of mimicry -- not in order to steal another artist's style or ideas but as a means of developing technical skills that can later be applied to a more personal vision. As long as we don't take this student work as our real work, or attempt to put it before the public as such, then I think there is often no harm in this; on the contrary, it can be an important step toward finding our real work.

Our daughter, for example, trained as chef by apprenticing in Alyn Williams' Michelin-starred restaurant in London. Learning to cook as Williams' cooked, which she was expected to do without deviation, was the first step toward discovering her own personal style of cooking, while learning the technical skills she'll need in order to master her art.

Likewise, when I think back on how I learned to write, or to paint, it seems to me it was a form of apprenticeship too -- although some of the masters I learned from were long dead, and others were ones I met only in the pages of books, never in the flesh. I learned by loving their work, by imitating their work, by thinking and talking and dreaming about their work...until I grew a bit older and enough time had passed that their work had begun to settle inside me, to mingle with my own life experience, and then to alchemize into words and pictures that slowly, slowly turned into a vision and style of my own.

Photograph by James Ravilious

J.R.R. Tolkien once likened fairytales to a soup in which bits of story have been simmering for centuries. Each storyteller dips into that soup, he says, but also adds her own ingredients and spices to make it new for each new audience. I think of "influence" in a similar way: the soup of my creativity is made up of everything I've read, seen, listened to, felt, and experienced -- strongly flavored by all the art that I've loved but stirred together in a way that is inevitably, uniquely my own.

Some of the flavors in my soup are easy to identify: Arthur Rackham, Carl Larsson, and Beatrix Potter, for example, with a heaping teaspoon of Pre-Raphaelitism, a sprinkle of Angela Carter's fairy tales, a dash of Mary Oliver's poetry, a pinch of David Abram's ecological ideas. But other flavors that are just as crucial to the whole are perhaps only identifiable by me: my adolescent obsession with Romeo & Juliet, for instance (I can still recite the entire play by heart); or my teenage devotion to an obscure 1940s utopian novel called Islandia; or my late-20s Anais Nin fixation; or my life-long interest in the women war artists of WW1 and 2 (and would you have guessed that last one?). Scholars, of course, build whole careers on identifying the ingredients of famous artistic soups -- but for artists, our job is to keep adding and stirring, and getting that taste just right.

Hedger's Lunch Break by James Ravilious

The second part of Didier Graffet's comment is important too, however. There comes a time when an artist needs to stop looking at others' work.

This happens periodically throughout life, I think; there are periods of time when it's useful to read, look at, listen to, and otherwise submerge ourselves in the creations of others, and periods when we need to tune it all out in order to fully focus on our own. But what I want to examine in particular is that potent moment in the life of a budding writer or painter when we first deliberately turn our gaze away from the work of our mentors and heroes in order to follow the muse into the landscape of our own imagination.

For any serious creative artist, this act of "turning away" from influence and onto the path of ones own work is crucial -- it separates the men from the boys, as it were; the women from the girls; the student/apprentice from the artist. It is a vital moment in our creative journey -- but here's the rub: it's a moment that can't be forced; it can only happen when the time is right. Some people find their personal vision and artistic direction at a relatively young age; others search it for years; and others still, a lifetime. It comes when it comes, that magical moment when you finally start to understand what you have to say to the world through your art, and the ways that you alone can say it. When the voices of your creative heroes dim and you hear your own voice at last.

Jo Curzon and her Flock by James Ravilious

These days, deep into my middle age, I have been wandering the length and breadth of my inner landscape for so long now that it takes an effort to cast myself back to the early days of my career, when that landscape hadn't fully opened to me yet. I recall it as a fretful period of time, producing work that was earnest but derivative, and I felt myself lost in the forest of artistic influences all around me. I had a deep, urgent, passionate connection to the books and poems and paintings that I loved, and my deepest desire in all the world was to make art like that too. But that art had been crafted from lives, times, and experiences that were nothing like my own; my feeble attempts to walk in the footsteps of William Morris, say, or Vanessa Bell, or Sylvia Townsend Warner, or any of my other creative heroes had value as learning exercises, yes...but as art? Well, no; not so much. Yet it seemed that every new trail that I traveled on in my beloved forest of Mythic Arts had already been neatly sign-posted, and always by someone older, wiser, better, than me. I knew, theoretically, that what I needed to do was go out there and blaze my own damn trail...but I didn't yet know how to do such a thing, and I feared that I never would.

What I didn't quite understand was that I was still in the apprenticeship stage of my creative journey. I was honing my skills, stirring my soup -- which needed more time to simmer, despite my impatience to dish it out and serve it up. I was not only learning how to write and paint, I was accumulating life experience so that once I'd acquired those hard-won skills I'd have something to say with them. My soup was made from good, rich stock, but it needed spices still unknown to me, ingredients I had yet to gather.  And even when those flavors were finally added, it needed time to cook.

Gathering apples by James Ravilious

When I speak with young writers and artists who are eager to find their own direction, to move out of the long shadow of the artists who have gone before them, what they want is the magic word, the key, the secret handshake that will make this happen. And in fact, there is a magic word, but it's not one that anyone really wants to hear, not in this fast-paced, digital, mobile, media-saturated age we're living in, for the word is patience.

Poet Rainer M. Rilke had this to say about time, patience, and the making of art: “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth. To let each impression and each germ of feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one's own intelligence, and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity: that alone is living the artist's life, in understanding and in creating. There is no measuring in time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confidence in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer.”

Wistmans Wood by James Ravilious

A friend of mine who has worked with some of the greatest opera singers in the world explained to me that in her profession there's a term for ripening as an artist: it's called "finding your voice." It's understood that this can happen fully only with age and experience, and as a result many singers are in their 30s or 4os before they develop into the world-class artists they are destined to be. As literary and visual artists, we too must find our voices, and this doesn't usually happen fast.

No young artist wants to hear this, of course. I certainly didn't when I was starting out. We want to find our vision, our style, our success, our bestseller, our Newbery winner, our American Dream, and we want to find it now. To be sure, there are young prodigies who produce good (or at least popular) work at a tender age, and in our youth-fixated culture they are often singled out for particular attention. But there are many, many more of us whose voices ripen with age as opera singers' do. And by the time we're producing truly good work, we're older and greyer in the book jacket photos; it's impossible to promote us as the latest hot young thing. But that doesn't matter.  It's the work that matters. If it's good, then it is worth the wait.

Archie Parkhouse and his dog Sally by James Ravilious

It is my belief that the muse can't be forced. She comes when we're ready; or when she deems us worthy; or perhaps she just comes when she damn well wants to come. She can't be forced but she can be coaxed, and there are things that make a visitation much more likely: Practicing our craft, mastering our materials, showing up at our desks each day and working. Reading, looking, listening,and experiencing the world around us. We have to breathe the world into ourselves before we can breathe it out in our art; it's a circular motion. Inhale. Exhale. Artists who don't practice the art of living alongside the practice of their craft rarely do their best work, it seems to me. They've forgotten how to breathe.

Part of what we breathe in, of course, is the influence of the work of other artists. There are times, as we've discussed earlier, when this can be a good and helpful thing -- and there are other times when it's not, and it's rather important, I think, to learn the difference. Now I'm not claiming that every artist experiences this distinct passage from imitative/apprentice work to originality -- there are, of course, those blessed souls who seem to step out of the very womb fully formed. But for the rest of us mere mortals, I'd like to speak about my own experience as a developing artist in order to see if I can shed more light on this difficult stretch of the creative journey.

Moving the Sheep by James Ravilious

For me, as a young writer and painter, there came a time when I realized that the voices and visions in my head, created by the books and art I loved, were drowning out the sound of my own voice: so tentative then, so quiet, so unsure of its right to be heard. I remember a long grey time of casting about for a way of making art that seemed truly my own -- not imitation Rackham, not warmed-over Angela Carter, not wannabe Edward Burne-Jones. I was trying each of their styles on like trying on clothes in a vintage shop (something I did a lot of in those days too), looking for a style, an era, a borrowed glamour that would suit me. But unlike a fashion style, one's personal artistic vision is not something you find or chose. You can't shop for it in the marketplace of ideas. It grows within you.

For some people it grows slowly. You can look at their early art or writing and see clearly each small, steady step that has led them out of the shadow of influence and onto the path of their own work. For others, the change happens suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the heavens, usually provoked by an outside circumstance: the discovery of a new medium, for example; the influence of a new teacher or a mentor; or a life event, whether large or small, that pushes the artist in a new direction. I am definitely in the latter camp. It wasn't a slow change for me; I can date the exact period of time when I turned abruptly away from imitating my heroes and started making art that felt like my own. It happened suddenly, with the force of an earthquake. And it happened because I moved to the desert.

3 Amigos by Stu Jenks

Until that time, I'd always faced firmly East, living in New York City and Boston and gazing across the ocean to Europe. Everything I loved -- from the fairy tales I'd adored as a child to the art I poured over, the books I read, the Victorian-era history I devoured, the fiddle-and-harp folk music I craved, the ivy-draped landscape that moved my heart --  was European, primarily rooted in France and the British Isles.

It was sheer happenstance that I traveled West to the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona -- an alien, inhospitable place that held no romance, no allure for me; and sheer happenstance that I stayed there long enough to lose myself to it, both heart and soul. I won't go into the details of how and why that happened here -- I've writtten a whole novel about it, after all. (Well, not a novel about me, exactly, for the protagonist of The Wood Wife is a woman very different from myself -- but a novel about my experience of being seduced by a strange and powerful landscape, and how this can impact ones life and art.)

Secret Place by Stu Jenks

The point that I want to make here is that my muse finally came to me in a place that was stripped of the many familiar influences with which I'd clothed my creative life: the colors and scents of Pre-Raphaelitism, the green moss palette of the English woods. And I think this was no accident. There's something about leaving ones comfort zone and traveling into the great unknown that sets the spark to the tinder of our inner fires, helping us to see the world, and ourselves, and thus also our art, from an entirely new perspective. It was a kind of shock to find myself in love with a whole new landscape, a whole new color palette, a whole new region of history and stories -- and in that shock, the door finally opened into the realm of my true work. It's a realm that has its mossy green corners, yes, and its Burne-Jones rose vines and twisty Rackham trees, but which turns out to hold so much more besides --  like the smell of cottonwood burning in a ceremonial fire on a cold desert night, and the taste of fry bread, and the prickle of cactus, and the tip-tapping of  tiny hooves as javelina whisper through a moonlit wash. And in the stirring together of all these things -- rose vines and cactus, English thyme and desert sage, my broth finally turned into a proper soup: the distinctive taste of the tales I tell and the books I write and the paintings I paint. Mind you, it happened about ten years later that I'd wanted it to happen as an anxious young artist, but it happened, that's the important thing. And it couldn't have done so a single day sooner. The flavors of mesquite, mole, and fire-roasted green chillis were all still missing.

Icon by Stu Jenks

To those of you reading these words who have already found the path of your personal vision, I'd be curious to know when and how that happened. And to those of you still waiting for the pathway to open: Take heart and have patience. It will happen. It may be that a vital ingredient of your soup is still missing, but it will come -- often in some unexpected way. And when it does, I feel honor-bound to warn you, it may surprise you. The work that you find yourself called to do may not be what you ever expected; it may not even be entirely what you wanted. (Hey, I wanted to paint like Burne-Jones or Waterhouse, yet it's bird and fox and bunny girls that are stubbornly determined to come through my hands.) Patrica Hampl expressed it best in this passage taken from The Writer on Her Work: "Maybe being oneself is an acquired taste. For a writer it's a big deal to bow--or kneel or get knocked down--to the fact that you are going to write your own books and not somebody else's. Not even those books of the somebody else you thought it was your express business to spruce yourself up to be."

So go ahead, breathe those influences in. There's nothing wrong with influence, and with finding inspiration in the work of others. But when it's time (and you'll know when it's time), don't be afraid to leave that forest, to face in a new and unfamiliar and maybe even uncomfortable direction, and to listen for the quiet sound of your own voice. You'll find the way, I promise. Just remember to keep breathing.

And then get back to work.

Down the Deep Lanes by James Ravilious

About the art at the top this post: In the field of Mythic Arts, we walk in the footsteps of countless storytellers, writers, painters, and other creative souls who have gone before us. To honor them, I keep a bulletin board in my studio full of works by the men and women who are my muses, much like the bulletin board above. These are just some of creative folk whose work provides daily inspiration (from top to bottom, right to left): Arthur Rackham, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Kay Nielsen. Sulamith Wulfing, Dorothea Tanning, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo's drawings, James McNeil Whistler. Adrienne Segur, Holbein's drawings, John William Waterhouse. Jessie M. King, photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe, Edmund Dulac. Gwen John, Remedios Varo, Susan Seddon Boulet, Lizbeth Zwerger & Beatrix Potter, Frances MacDonald. Vanessa Bell at her easel (by Duncan Grant); photographs of William Morris, Frida Kahlo, Leonora Carrington, and Paula Rego at her easel. 

About the photographs: The Dartmoor photographs here are by the great rural photographer James Ravilious (1939-1999), who lived and worked in Devon, England. You can see more of his photographs on the James Ravilious website, and watch a lovely trailer for a film about him here. The Desert photographs here are by Stu Jenks, who lives and works in Tucson, Arizona. Visit the Fezziwig Press site to see more of his beautiful work. All rights reserved by Stu Jenks and the James Ravilious estate.

About the text: The essay above first appeared on Myth & Moor in January, 2011. All rights reserved by the author. 


The work we're called to

King stone at Scorhill

From Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit by Alison Hawthorne Deming:

"'Natural forces and human forces have intertwined,' writes geoscientist Paul Crutzen in defining the new geologic epic of the Anthropocene, 'so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other.' The enormity of this change in the history of Earth places a new challenge before the human imagination in defining ourselves and the nature of the work we are called to. Communicating information has hardly brought the forces of greed, guns, and gutting of the planet to their knees. Information doesn't change people. Ask the alcoholic or the addict. Sometimes passion changes people. Sometimes empathy does. Sometimes the unconscious yanks you up by your heels, turns you upside down, and gets you straight with reality. Sometimes social cues ripple out from an event or a scientific finding and a cultural norm becomes abnormal. Sometimes the cue is grief. Sometimes the cue is love. Bothe tell us what we can't bear losing and create a resonance that can harden into conviction.

The Walla Brook, Dartmoor

The Walla Brook, Dartmoor

"This brings me to art. Adam Gopnik writes that 'art is a way of expanding our resonances, civilization our way of resonating to those expansions.'  Art has been in the kit of adaptive strategies for at least thirty thousand years of human history. The late Pleistocene. That's when the great animal paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet were made, were carved with mammoth tusks. In truth, art's time horizon is probably much more deeply buried in the mystery of the past. I Ancient hand ax, Norfolk, Englandhave a photograph taped above my desk, a photograph of a hand ax, a hefty tool meant to fit into the palm for carving flesh from bone. This flint is from Norfolk, England, made by Homo erectus some 250,000 ago. The flint has been carefully flaked to create the utilitarian shape, but the maker has fashioned the carving to highlight a fossil mollusk in the center of one face of the teardrop-shaped ax. There sits the small scallop shell, rays fanning out in an arc, as if a little sunrise had been inlaid in stone.

"What hand caught this anomoly in the rock? What hand mastered the craft to chip away the surrounding stone, mindful of the beauty and mystery the fossil shell gave to the object in hand? At least three other hand axes are known from Europe. Archaic hunters spent artful hours getting the symmetry and edge and heft just right. The statement of beauty made by this object tranlates easily across the geologic eras. The skill and love of beauty are all the more impressive, as Denis Dutton illuminated in his rock-star TED talk 'A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,' when one considers that such hand axes were being made by hominid ancestors before language had developed.

Stone wall, between Scorhill & Kestor

Stone wall, Dartmoor

"So what might art, this primal skill set, have to do with our adaptation to climate change? Climate skeptics sway public opinion because they appeal to emotions of fear of change, anger at authority, and denial of grief over loss. What good is a poem in a world of weapons and wounds and wastefulness? Art takes up such feelings as a given. Athletics provide a ritualized way for people to act out violence and competition while doing minimal harm to one another. Art provides a ritualized way to choose beauty over use, to use dissonance as as way to find harmony, to express something in a way that will draw a community together. Art cleanses the spirit of toxins that have weakened it. Art lets one inner life speak to another across vast spans of time and distance. It's not art's task to convey information, though it may interrogate the usefulness or truthfullness of information. Art is empathy. Empathy gets in the way of objective science, which is not to say that a scientist does not feel empathy. But scientists do not cultivate their empathy as an instrument to employ in their professional practice. Art tries to do just that. It weaves connective tissue between fact and feeling, self and world, individual and collective good. Art in a time of radical loss is an elegy. It teaches us how to mourn, whether in the context of family loss or the larger losses brought about by the extreme sport of anthropogenic climate change.

Moorland sheep

"Art can use the power of grief to speak to the depth of one's love for what we would protect and sustain. It can expose the failure of the old myths and raise appetite for new myths that can guide us."

Bog cotton on the moorWords: The passage above is from "Owl Watching in the Experimental Forest," in Zoologies by Alison Deming Hawthorne (Milkweed Editions, 2014), which I highly recommend. The poem in the picture captions is from The Cleansing of the Knife by Naomi Mitchison (Canongate, 1978). All rights reserved by the authors. Horizontal pictures: The king stone at Scorhill; the Walla Brook; stone walls and sheep in the Dartmoor hills. Vertical picture: Paleolithic hand ax, flint knapped around a Cretaceous fossil of the bivalve Spondylus spinosus, found in West Tofts, Norfolk. (Photographer unknown.)


Making sense of the more-than-human world

The Winter Guest by David Hollington

From The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram:

"A story must be judged according to whether it makes sense. And 'making sense' must be here understood in its most direct meaning: to make sense is to enliven the senses. A story that makes sense is one that stirs the senses from their slumber, one that opens the eyes and the ears to their real surroundings, tuning the tongue to the actual tastes in the air and sending chills of recognition along the surface of the skin. To make sense is to release the body from the constraints imposed by outworn ways of speaking, and hence to renew and rejuvenate one's felt awareness of the world. It is to make the senses wake up to where they are."

After the Prophet by David Hollington

Central image from Debt of Love by David Hollington

"Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth -- our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."

The Rapture/Wake Up by David Hollington

"The practice of realignment with reality can hardly afford to be utopian. It cannot base itself upon a vision hatched in our heads and then projected into the future. Any approach to current problems that aims us toward a mentally envisioned future implicitly holds us within the oblivion of linear time. It holds us, that is, within the same illusory dimension that enabled us to neglect and finally to forget the land around us. By projecting the solution somewhere outside of the perceivable present, it invites our attention away from the sensuous surroundings, induces us to dull our senses, yet again, on behalf of a mental idea.

"A genuinely ecological approach does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present. It strives to become ever more awake to the other lives, the other forms of sentience and sensibility that surround us in the open field of the present moment. For the other animals and the gathering clouds do not exist in linear time. We meet them only when the thrust of historical time begins to open itself outward, when we walk out of our heads into the cycling life of the land around us. This wild expanse has its own timing, its rhythms of dawning and dusk, its seasons of gestation and bud and blossom. It is here, and not in linear history, that the ravens reside."

Healing Place by David Hollington

The marvelous art today is by British painter David Hollington. He studied at Harrow School of Art and at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, and is now represented by The Rowley Gallery.

"Animals and birds are messengers, healers and protagonists within the narrative structure of my paintings," he says. ""I feel closely connected to forms of Shamanism where a channel is opened between the human world and the world of animals. I can't control this process when I am drawing, objects that are undetermined, shift and change shape until I begin to understand what the message is that I am receiving. At this point a key animal will appear and take the lead, this will be one of my trinity - the fox, the hare or the owl (often white). Once the animal or bird has taken the lead it will engender the possibility of including a mortal or god, sometimes a Hindu or Celtic deity. Then the tone of the painting will crystallise, this can take a considerable time, sometimes months, but once it does I begin to see in colour and feel the time of day the story is taking place."F

Follow this link to read his wonderful meditation on the fox in folklore, literature, and art.

Medea by David Hollington

The Garden by David Hollington

Words & Pictures: The passage above is from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram (Vintage, 1996), a book that has had a strong impact on my work since I first read it upon publication, and that I return to often. I highly recommend it, along with David's follow-up book, Becoming Animal. The titles of David Hollington's beautiful pictures can be found in the picture captions. All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.